We spent a few days over the Thanksgiving holiday in West Lafayette, Indiana with my parents. My father just turned 90 and my mother will soon be 87.
They’re holding up pretty well, though both the years and the mileage are taking their toll. Occasionally, that “toll” manifests itself through information forgotten (“Did I take my medicine today?”, “What did we have for dinner yesterday?”, etc.); sometimes it reveals itself through the expression of non sequiturs—statements or questions that make perfect sense to my parents because—I think—their inner dialogue provides the necessary filler material that the rest of us are not privy to.
So it was not a surprise when my father emerged from his bedroom one morning and cryptically announced, “Well, there’s only three of us left!”
I glanced up from the newspaper and replied, with customary eloquence, “Huh?”
“There’s just three of us left.”
“Three of who? What are you talking about?” I asked, wondering where the old man’s memory and intellect was going to wander and how I was going to muster the energy and ability to lead him back.
“There were four famous people born in 1926: Fidel Castro, Hugh Hefner, Queen Elizabeth, and, of course, me. Castro died yesterday. That leaves Hugh, Elizabeth and me.” He paused and stroked his chin as he often does when he’s deep in thought. “I always figured Fidel would be the first to go.”
“Ahh,” I replied, grateful dad was still in the here and now and impressed with his sense of humor.
“Hugh will probably be next, I think. But I’m not sure I can outlast Elizabeth. She’s had it pretty cushy, you know.”
“True, dad, but her son has given her more headaches than I’ve given you,” I winked.
“Don’t bet on it,” he shot back.
There was another man born in 1926 who deserves some mention, a man remembered—if he’s remembered at all—as one of the biggest “goats” in sports history. Google “The Giants win the pennant” right now and you’ll be taken to a grainy black-and-white video of the New York Giants’ Bobby Thomson spanking an 0-1 fastball for a 3-run home run in the bottom of the ninth inning of a playoff game against the Brooklyn Dodgers. Thomson’s “shot heard ‘round the world”—so called because the game was the first ever to be broadcast live on television from coast-to-coast (and heard by our troops serving in Korea via Armed Forces Radio)—ushered the Giants to the 1951 World Series against the Yankees and sent the Dodgers packing and hoping for a better fate the next year. As a result, the losing pitcher’s likeness (ironically, his jersey number was “13”) was hung in effigy from lampposts in Brooklyn soon thereafter, and—try this ignominy on for size—when he and his new bride (the daughter of one of the Dodgers’ co-owners) emerged from the Brooklyn church building where their wedding ceremony had just taken place two weeks after the iconic playoff game, some waiting Dodger fans greeted him with boos.
Ralph Branca, the man who delivered the pitch, was born, along with my father (and Hugh, Elizabeth and Fidel) in 1926. He died last week, at peace and surrounded by his adoring and appreciative family. Between his arrival and his departure, he accomplished a great deal in his life, most of which is either forgotten or was never known in the first instance by a public who prefers its heroes and goats in stark, Manichean relief.
A tiny sampling of Mr. Branca’s biography: He was the 15th of 17 children, born to an Italian immigrant father and Hungarian immigrant mother. He was raised in a devoutly Catholic family in Mount Vernon, New York, though he discovered later in his life that his mother came from a Jewish family and that several aunts, uncles, and cousins were killed in various Nazi concentration camps during World War II. Branca played both baseball and basketball for New York University (when they were a basketball power) before quitting to begin his professional baseball career. He debuted in the Majors in 1944 at age 18. His pitching career wasn’t Hall-of-Fame caliber, but it was strong: over a 12-year span as a major leaguer he went 88-68 and made the All-Star team on three occasions. His best year was arguably 1947 when he went 21-12. That was also the season when he befriended and defended a new teammate named Jackie Robinson, who endured extreme discrimination when he broke the color barrier that year.
Robinson was among the first to console Branca after the fateful pitch against Bobby Thomson, and he and Jackie remained life-long friends. Indeed, Branca served as one of Robinson’s pall bearers when Robinson passed away in 1972. After he retired from baseball, Branca enjoyed a lengthy and successful career in the insurance business, won 17 consecutive matches of the popular TV game show “Concentration” in 1963, and, perhaps most notably, served for over a decade and a half as the chief executive of the Baseball Assistance Team, a nonprofit entity created to provide assistance to former players undergoing severe financial distress.
By all accounts I’m aware of, he endured his public failure with profound grace and patience, and was beloved by all his family and friends. Any way you perform an accounting that matters, Branca’s ledger was one that reflected a hero, not a goat.